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Georgia's Flag Goes to a Vote

Today's nonbinding referendum offers two designs for state banner, neither of which has a rebel cross. That has some people seeing red.

March 02, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

CONYERS, Ga. — Elijah Coleman climbed out of the car in the dark, carrying a hammer, nails and poster displaying the rebel cross. Printed beneath the symbol of the Confederacy were two words: Sonny lied.

As 18-wheelers rushed by, the 62-year-old used car salesman nailed his message to a highway sign -- as he has done hundreds of times in the last week during midnight rides across western Georgia. Aware that his chosen form of political activism is a misdemeanor, Coleman jumped back into the Subaru and barked at his son, who was driving, to get going.

Georgians have been awaiting the chance to vote on their state flag, which has been redesigned twice in the last three years. But the rebel cross is not among the choices in a nonbinding referendum on the today's ballot. That has left "flaggers" like Coleman -- who campaigned vigorously to put Gov. Sonny Perdue in office -- wanting vengeance.

The flag is a divisive issue in Georgia.

From 1956 until 2001, its prominent feature was the rebel cross. But in 2001, then-Gov. Roy Barnes -- concerned that the flag's association with slavery was hurting business in Georgia -- introduced a new banner, in which the cross was reduced to postcard size.

The following year, Barnes lost his reelection bid to Perdue, who had promised a referendum on the flag. But the state General Assembly quashed Perdue's plan to include the 1956 banner among the options put before voters.

Now the remaining choice is between two flags of recent vintage -- Barnes' predominantly blue banner and a red, white and blue one introduced by Perdue last year. And the flaggers say they are the victims of a political bait and switch.

For the last week, Coleman has been out until 3 or 4 a.m., crawling into bed shortly before his wife, a schoolteacher, gets up for work. "Our granddaddies went out barefoot in the ice. They might march 20 miles a day, and then they charged into cannons and bayonets," said Coleman, a white-haired member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "With what little I do, it would be ridiculous for us to complain."

Polls have shown that most Georgians are underwhelmed by the choice before them. Because the vote is nonbinding, the Legislature is not compelled to switch flags, even if the earlier version wins.

With the controversial 1956 flag off the table, there had been no major effort to sway voters either way until last week, when the Georgia Chamber of Commerce sent 400,000 fliers out to voters, arguing that the 2003 flag has the best chance of putting an end to a controversy that has hurt Georgia's image.

Former President Carter and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young have endorsed the 2003 flag, as has state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Assn. of Black Elected Officials.

"We legislators and activists have not done a good enough job explaining the differences between the two flags," Brooks said as he campaigned for the Perdue flag over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People consistently has endorsed the 2001 flag. In a statement, Michael Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and deputy director of the Atlanta branch, said the 2003 flag was "not as obvious as the rebel cross. But for those who are in the know, it is still a very Confederate, very slave-oriented flag."

Once major players in the debate, the rebel cross supporters now are watching from the sidelines, like "the skunk at the Sunday school picnic," said Jeff Davis, president of the Georgia Heritage Coalition, which includes a number of Confederate descendants' group. Most such organizations have recommended that their members not vote in the referendum, hoping to keep the turnout so low that it discredits the vote.

When it became clear in the last year that Perdue would not push for restoration of the old flag, the activists' frustration gave rise to some exotic protests.

In an effort to publicly embarrass Perdue, they have attached "Sonny lied" messages to airplanes and a blimp known as the "Rebel Zeppelin."

They have worn chicken suits, carried bullhorns and lugged around a fake toilet to make a point about the flags they find unsatisfactory.

And they've been rating their own performances on websites. "All in all, it was a good flagging," one activist wrote recently. "I got an autograph, and the local Republican Party even validated my parking!"

At the heart of their activism, however, is a serious goal: They want to keep the debate over the 1956 flag alive.

In Georgia, loyalty to the flag is a "marker of identity," said political scientist Charles Bullock -- separating image-conscious Atlanta from rural traditionalists who are no longer comfortable living there.

"It indicates an alienation, a rural sense of loss of power to the cities and the suburbs," said Bullock, a professor at the University of Georgia.

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